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The 2017-2018 Season Will be Doc Rivers’ Greatest Challenge Yet

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Doc Rivers is going into his fifth season as the Clippers’ head coach. While this squad has lower expectations than the teams before it, Doc has more on his shoulders than ever before. Here’s why

Utah Jazz v Los Angeles Clippers - Game Two Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

After four years of struggling with top-heavy rosters and little depth, Doc Rivers is now facing the exact opposite problem: too many players on the Clippers need minutes. There are only three players who aren’t facing any real competition for minutes: Danilo Gallinari, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan. The rest of the minutes are, to one extent or another, up for grabs. It will be Doc’s job, of course, to manage who gets those minutes, who plays with whom, and what kind of team this jury-rigged roster will be.

When Doc Rivers came to the Clippers in 2013, the team had a previously established roster and identity. Chris Paul, Jamal Crawford, Griffin, and Jordan were already on the team as its top four players, and Doc added J.J. Redick in his first summer. Those five guys were the Clips’ core until this past summer, when Paul, Crawford, and Redick all departed. That group knew how to play together. They knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses. They had a long-established history, and were able to lead the Clippers to never-before-seen heights. That continuity is now over.

Only five players from the Clippers’ roster last year are returning. One of those wasn’t a rotation player last season, and probably won’t be one this season. That means integrating at least six new pieces into the rotation, possibly more depending on how deep a bench Doc wants to play. He’s never really had serious rotation issues before. Yes, he played Paul Pierce too much over better options such as Luc Mbah a Moute and Wes Johnson. And yes, he probably should have staggered his star players a bit more over the years. But playing Wes over Pierce almost certainly wouldn’t have changed the Clippers’ outcome the past two seasons. This season, the choices Doc makes in terms of who he plays and the lineups he creates will be far more important than in years past, simply because he has more choices, and the decisions are less clear-cut.

The position that is the most cut and dry in terms of which players are in and out of the rotation entirely is also the one with perhaps the most complex issues lineup-wise. Pat Beverley would appear to be the best guard among the Clippers’ foursome expected to get minutes to start the season. He’s a better shooter than Austin Rivers, a better pure point guard than Austin or Lou Williams, and is a far stronger defender than Williams or Miloš Teodosić. That makes him the safest option of the four, and therefore the most likely to have a consistent number of minutes. The ability to play on and off ball makes him a fine fit with any of the Clippers’ other guards, as well as with the Clippers’ frontcourt stars. The difficulty Doc will run into is finding workable guard combinations that don’t include Beverley.

A Teodosić-Williams lineup would likely be dynamic offensively, combining the best mix of shooting, playmaking, and shot creation. The issue is that it would also be a complete sieve on the other end, allowing opposing guards to score at will. Replacing Teodosić with Austin Rivers helps the defense out, but harms the offense. Neither Lou nor Austin are truly lead ball-handlers or playmakers, and they like to call their own number rather than setting up teammates. Unless they are playing with Blake Griffin, who could run the offense, any lineup with the two of them as the guards would quickly devolve into ISO-ball and less than ideal offense. Teodosić and Austin is better, but could be shaky in the shooting department (pending Miloš’ transition to the NBA three point line).

Doc will have to walk a tightrope in balancing his guards’ minutes. Explosive scorers such as Lou and Austin need minutes when they are hot, but leaving them out too long together - or in the wrong lineups - could lead to the same kind of frustrating basketball Clippers’ fans were used to when Jamal Crawford led weak bench units. Really, the biggest issue is that Lou is only a true fit with Beverley, yet doesn’t help the rest of the starting lineup as much as Austin (defense) or Miloš (passing) do. While he can play off-ball, he’s fantastic creating his own offense with the ball in his hands. That ability is far less useful with Blake Griffin and Danilo Gallinari in the game. Subbing him in quickly for whoever starts alongside Beverley could be ideal in terms of a backcourt pairing, but Lou’s instincts to dominate the ball would have to be tempered.

Depending on who the opponent is, Austin or Miloš could be also used for stretches with Lou: Miloš if the opposing teams’ bench guards aren’t threatening, and Austin if the paint is open to attack on the other end. Regardless, Lou’s incredibly efficient scoring is a true asset, but it can’t come at the cost of the Clippers’ defense, or their other players getting into a rhythm on offense. Even though he’s a superior player to Jamal Crawford at this point in their careers, Doc needs to avoid falling into the same trap of overplaying Lou that he did with Jamal.

Matters get no easier for Doc in the frontcourt. Danilo Gallinari, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan are the three best players on the team, and will start for the Clippers unless injured. However, it’s a morass after that, with as many as six players competing for three (at most) spots in the rotation. Things are complicated further by the fact that the Clippers don’t have a “true” small forward on the roster at the moment. Gallinari, Sam Dekker, and Wes Johnson can all play small forward, but each might be better at power forward. Gallinari is great at power forward because his size enables him to defend bruisers at the position well, while his merely average lateral movement will get exploited less. Dekker and Wes fit better at the four due to their lack of outside shooting. They are well below-average shooters and floor spacers at small forward, but acceptable playing down a position. The difficulty with playing any of them at power forward? That’s Blake Griffin’s spot.

Blake has averaged over 35 minutes per game so far in his career, and it’s unlikely that Doc plays him less than 32 minutes on any given game (barring a blowout). That leaves 16 available minutes at power forward, provided that Blake plays all his minutes at that position. Of course, he could move down a spot to center as well, but his lack of rim protection would get exposed against non-bench units. Even if he does play some bench minutes at center, allowing Dekker or Wes to play the four, that just blocks the reserve centers from getting playing time. Willie Reed and Montrezl Harrell aren’t exactly game-changers, but both are solid NBA players, and ideally deserve minutes. The problem is that due to their lack of shooting, they shouldn’t play together much, as they would severely congest the lane on offense. It’s just a mess, and one or both of them might not get many minutes to start the season if Blake plays a decent number of minutes at center.

One the other hand, if Dekker and/or Wes fail to shoot well enough to be playable at small forward, Doc might lean towards bench three-guard lineups with Blake (or Gallo) at power forward, and one of Harrell/Reed at center. Such lineups would be potent offensively and dumpster fires defensively, though their lack of defense would matter less as long as they faced mostly bench units. Regardless, I would be shocked if Doc didn’t stagger Blake and Gallinari this year (taking out Blake early so Gallo could get minutes at the four with the starters is my guess), allowing for more playmaking and scoring on the bench. Having either of those guys on reserve units would alleviate some of the playmaking deficiencies of the Austin-Lou combo (see above), and enable the star forwards to get their solo time in the sun.

None of the discussion so far has even allowed for the Clippers’ young guys to get any minutes. Jawun Evans has shown nice flashes in summer league and preseason, but is buried behind four guards. Sindarius Thornwell is closer to minutes as a defensively minded wing, yet is probably too short to guard small forwards on a steady basis. If he stands out defensively, however, and proves himself capable of guarding larger players due to his tenacity and wingspan, he could be an interesting tool in Doc’s shed. Brice Johnson can shoot and score, and has the athleticism to be a difference maker on the defensive end of the court. Unfortunately, he seems to lack awareness on both offense and defense—Harrell and Reed appear to be ahead of him on the depth chart to start the season.

Doc is in a sticky position regarding playing his youngsters. While the 2017-2018 Clippers are theoretically a win-now team, they aren’t in a position to contest for a championship, and there is every possibility this team is completely different next summer. That means there is more pressure to develop for the future than there was previously in Doc’s tenure. If the season starts going south, or the Clippers look aggressively mediocre, it’s possible the young guys start getting more run.

Doc has simply never had these kinds of rotation issues in Los Angeles. His teams have always had too few players who should get minutes, rather than too many. Even in Boston, he was coaching championship contenders who were top-heavy, and mostly didn’t have time for prospects or lineup experimentation. This year, if Doc doesn’t fiddle with his lineups to find combinations that work, the Clippers could win significantly less games than they might otherwise. That’s a lot of pressure by itself, but other factors are working against Doc this year as well.

Doc hasn’t had to coach a team without a top-tier point guard in almost a decade. He’s been fortunate enough to have Rajon Rondo (one of the better point guards in his generation) and Chris Paul (one of the best point guards of any generation) in their respective primes. Running plays and getting the offense into sets is a lot easier with a Hall of Fame point guard than not. Rondo and Paul are both perfectionists, ball-dominant guards who control every aspect of their team’s offense while on the court. Having that level of “coach on the court” is a luxury that Doc will not possess this year. There has been a lot of talk in preseason surrounding the Clippers’ reliance on ball-movement and free-flowing offense. If the Clippers can pull that type of play off, it will mitigate the loss of Paul substantially. But when crunch time hits, Doc will have to create plays more substantive than just “get Chris the ball”. And that leads into one of the more interesting sub-currents of the season—Doc losing his role in the front office.

One of the reasons why Clippers’ fans weren’t in favor of Doc being the primary decision-maker in the front office is that it took away from his coaching responsibilities. And while that was the cause of much complaining and consternation over the years, it was also a sort of cushion for Doc: it was easier to be forgiving of his coaching mistakes knowing how much else he had on his plate. That excuse no longer holds. Doc still has a say in basketball operations, of course, but that’s no longer one of his specific duties. He is the coach, nothing more, nothing less. And if his rotations are off, or the team doesn’t seem to be executing on the court, or the out-of-bounds plays aren’t working… there’s nowhere to hide.

The Clippers are no longer contenders. That would seem to take pressure off the team, and, by extension, Doc. However, it makes his coaching all the more important. In the Chris Paul years, fans knew what to expect. The starting lineup would be brilliant, the bench would be middling (at best), and the team would likely struggle with injuries. Two of those factors are now up in the air. Will the starting lineup be good? Well, it depends on the players being healthy (and playing to their potential), but also on who Doc plays in it, and in how he designs the schemes. The bench has the potential to be great this season. There are NBA veterans up and down the depth chart, and not washed up geezers either. But there is a possibility for disaster as well.

A Lou-Austin-Dekker-Harrell-Reed lineup has five NBA rotation players, and each player is technically playing a position that fits them. If one were to simply glance at the Clippers’ roster, it would probably be one of the first bench lineups that would come to mind. Yet I would bet on that lineup being a disaster on both ends of the court, and I hope that if Doc ever plays it, it’s only for a few minutes so he can see how bad it would be. Put simply, it lacks passing, size, shooting, and versatility. On the other hand, Doc could roll out funky lineups of Miloš-Lou-Austin-Wes-Blake, or Lou-Austin-Sindarius-Gallo-Reed. One or both of those lineups could be awful. But they are more creative—the first has the potential to be explosive on offense, and the second could be surprisingly tenacious on defense. It’s up to Doc to find the combinations that work, and those that don’t.

The Clippers could be really good this year, or they could be well into the lottery. They are one of the hardest teams in the NBA to predict, and have a wide range of potential outcomes. A lot of that variability comes down to Doc Rivers. Other things need to fall the Clippers’ way for them to be great, but Doc’s coaching will be one of the most important determinants of how their season goes. There are choices to make, and rotations to be created. This season, with all its unique and varied challenges, will be Doc Rivers’ toughest trial as a coach yet.